During a severe drought in 2011, JennaDee Detro noticed that many trees on the family cattle ranch in Cat Spring, Texas, withered, but a certain evergreen holly appeared vigorous. It's called a yaupon.
"The best we can tell is that they enjoy suffering," Detro says with a laugh. "So this kind of extreme weather in Texas — and the extreme soil conditions — are perfect for the yaupon."
Detro began researching yaupon — a tree abundant in its native range, from coastal North Carolina to East Texas — and discovered that the plant contains caffeine and has a remarkable history.
A thousand years ago, Native American traders dried, packed and shipped the leaves all the way to Cahokia, the ancient mound city near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Native Americans sometimes used it in purification rituals involving purging (this led to its Latin name, Ilex vomitoria — a misnomer, because yaupon is not an emetic). Traveling through North Carolina in 1775, the naturalist William Bartram said Cherokees called yaupon "the beloved tree." Early settlers even exported yaupon to Europe.
But yaupon was eventually elbowed aside by what purists call true tea – made from the leaves of the Asian shrub Camellia sinensis. (Technically, yaupon is an herbal infusion.) Because of yaupon's recent obscurity, Detro had to learn how to dry and prepare the leaves on her own.
"There is a lost art of preparing yaupon tea," says Detro, "because there are so many years between the Native American use of yaupon tea and our modern use of yaupon tea."
After Detro learned how to process the leaves, she told her sister, Abianne Falla, about her plans to sell the product at a farmer's market or two. "At first, when she was telling me about it, I kind of had the same mentality of everyone around here, 'Well, let me taste it first,' " says Falla. "And as soon as I did, it was like, 'We might be onto something. I think we should make a run of it. ' "
The sisters started selling their Cat Spring Yaupon Tea online two years ago, both a green tea and a roasted black tea. And Falla began getting the tea onto store shelves and into restaurants. Now the tea is being served at Austin restaurants like Dai Due and Odd Duck that focus on locally sourced food.
Odd Duck manager Jason James said he was surprised to learn about the tea. But he was pleased to find that the taste familiar. "The flavor profile of it, I don't think it's too far off from a black tea," he says. "The tannin structures are a little bit different."
James says the lack of tannins can be a benefit, because it is harder to over-steep the tea. He recently started serving yaupon in lieu of black tea, and now the lunch crowd drinks four or five gallons daily. "Being that we had that ethic of sourcing local, and being sustainable, this just fit the bill," James says.
Detro and Falla have had some guidance along the way from Steve Talcott, a professor of food chemistry at Texas A & M. Talcott says that yaupon, like coffee and tea, is rich in the antioxidants known as polyphenols. And it's the only native North American plant he knows of that contains caffeine. He says the caffeine levels in yaupon vary, but are roughly comparable to green or black tea.
Talcott says he loves to watch people's reactions when he tells them that this common outdoor tree can be turned into a tasty, and buzz-delivering, brew.
"I'll walk out and pick some leaves off a plant and go, 'This is the only plant we know in North America that contains caffeine, I can make a wonderful tea out of this.' And they are just like, 'No, no way,' " says Talcott. "It's just amazing, until they actually try the tea. Until you try it for the first time, you'd just be blown away that it's an edible food."
Drinking iced tea at the corner store in Cat Spring in the heat of the day, construction worker David Avery is a bit skeptical. He says he's spent many hours on a bulldozer, tearing up yaupon, which encroaches on hay fields and pastures.
"Ahhh, yaupon. Shoot, if you're from around here, you just want to get rid of it,"Avery says. "Most of the people, we don't do anything with it. First that I've heard that they're making tea."
But Avery says he'd like to try it. And he's not alone. Detro and Falla have sold enough yaupon to brew more than 100,000 cups of tea, to customers in 36 states. With other companies in Georgia and Florida now selling yaupon, it may be poised for a comeback that's long overdue.
Tea Tuesdays is an occasional series exploring the science, history, culture and economics of this ancient brewed beverage.
Murray Carpenter is a journalist and author of Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts And Hooks Us.